Work­ers who helped make tech­nol­ogy so ad­dic­tive are dis­con­nect­ing them­selves from the in­ter­net. Paul Lewis re­ports on the Sil­i­con Val­ley re­fuseniks who worry the race for hu­man at­ten­tion has cre­ated a world of per­pet­ual dis­trac­tion

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL -

Justin Rosen­stein had tweaked his lap­top’s op­er­at­ing sys­tem to block Red­dit, banned him­self from Snapchat, which he com­pares to heroin, and im­posed lim­its on his use of Face­book. The 34-year-old tech ex­ec­u­tive took a more rad­i­cal step to re­strict his use of so­cial me­dia and other ad­dic­tive tech­nolo­gies. He pur­chased a new iPhone and in­structed his as­sis­tant to set up a parental-con­trol fea­ture to pre­vent him from down­load­ing any apps.

He was par­tic­u­larly aware of the al­lure of Face­book “likes”, which he de­scribes as “bright dings of pseudo-plea­sure” that can be as hol­low as they are se­duc­tive. And Rosen­stein should know: he was the Face­book en­gi­neer who cre­ated the “like” but­ton. A decade af­ter he stayed up all night cod­ing a pro­to­type of what was then called an “awe­some” but­ton, Rosen­stein be­longs to a small but grow­ing band of Sil­i­con Val­ley heretics who com­plain about the rise of the so-called “at­ten­tion econ­omy”: an in­ter­net shaped around the de­mands of an ad­ver­tis­ing econ­omy.

Th­ese re­fuseniks tend to be de­sign­ers, engineers and prod­uct man­agers who, like Rosen­stein, sev­eral years ago put in place the build­ing blocks of a dig­i­tal world from which they are now try­ing to dis­en­tan­gle them­selves. Rosen­stein ap­pears most con­cerned about the psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects on peo­ple who, re­search shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is grow­ing con­cern that as well as ad­dict­ing users, tech­nol­ogy is con­tribut­ing to­ward so-called “con­tin­u­ous par­tial at­ten­tion”, se­verely lim­it­ing peo­ple’s abil­ity to fo­cus.

But those con­cerns are triv­ial com­pared to the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact upon the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that some of Rosen­stein’s peers be­lieve can be at­trib­uted to the rise of so­cial me­dia and the at­ten­tion-based mar­ket that drives it. Draw­ing a straight line be­tween ad­dic­tion to so­cial me­dia and po­lit­i­cal earth­quakes like Brexit and Don­ald Trump, they con­tend that dig­i­tal forces have com­pletely up­ended the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and could even ren­der democ­racy ob­so­lete.

In 2007, Rosen­stein was one of a small group of Face­book em­ploy­ees who de­cided to cre­ate a path of least re­sis­tance – a sin­gle click – to “send lit­tle bits of pos­i­tiv­ity” across the plat­form. Face­book’s “like” fea­ture was, Rosen­stein says, “wildly” suc­cess­ful: en­gage­ment soared as peo­ple en­joyed the short-term boost they got from giv­ing or re­ceiv­ing so­cial af­fir­ma­tion, while Face­book har­vested valu­able data about the pref­er­ences of users that could be sold to ad­ver­tis­ers. The idea was copied by other apps and web­sites.

It is re­veal­ing that many of th­ese younger tech­nol­o­gists are wean­ing them­selves off their own prod­ucts. If the peo­ple who built th­ese tech­nolo­gies are tak­ing steps to wean them­selves, can the rest of us be ex­pected to ex­er­cise our free will?

Not ac­cord­ing to Tris­tan Har­ris, a 33-year-old for­mer Google em­ployee turned critic of the tech in­dus­try. “All of us are jacked into this sys­tem,” he says. “All of our minds can be hi­jacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.” Har­ris, who has been branded “the clos­est thing Sil­i­con Val­ley has to a con­science”, in­sists that bil­lions of peo­ple have lit­tle choice over whether they use th­ese ubiq­ui­tous tech­nolo­gies, and are largely un­aware of the in­vis­i­ble ways in which a small num­ber of peo­ple in Sil­i­con Val­ley are shap­ing their lives.

A grad­u­ate of Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, Har­ris stud­ied un­der BJ Fogg, a be­havioural psy­chol­o­gist revered in tech cir­cles for mastering the ways tech­no­log­i­cal de­sign can be used to per­suade peo­ple. Har­ris is the stu­dent who went rogue; a whistle­blower, he is lift­ing the cur­tain on the pow­ers ac­cu­mu­lated by tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies and the ways they are us­ing that in­flu­ence. “A hand­ful of peo­ple, work­ing at a hand­ful of tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, through their

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